In the haunting words of that sadly neglected, oft-rejected film score composer, Stanley Rogers: 'Don't be a pro-cras-tin-ator'.
But it's not as easy as that.
I'm not talking here about putting off the act of writing. (Cue the clickbait lists and quotes... Yeah, thanks a bundle.)
I'm talking about when you have typed THE END, and you are reasonably happy with this latest draft. But you have another project on the back-burner and this is the perfect time to start looking again at that. So you do, even though you kind of know what's going to happen - how you're going to leave the newly finished work a little too long before re-reading it, and spend a bit too much time in another mindset, hearing another voice come through, so it'll sound a little off again when you do.
Or, rather, when I do. It's me we're talking about here. My hang-ups. My pro-cras-tin-ation.
In the past year, this is how it has gone. 12-14 months ago I was getting demoralised pulling together the short story collection. Although I was still happy with the linking concept (which this week has proved more topical than ever, dammit), individual stories weren't performing as well as I'd hoped and I was talking myself into cutting more and more of them, so I called a timeout before the whole thing disappeared up its own Aristotle. Instead, I developed an idea that had been buzzing around, a longer-form story, which became my novella, 76. I was 80% happy with the early drafts of that, but there were (and still are) nagging concerns, things that need fixing and need some inspiration if that's going to happen. So while waiting for that I decided to use my time productively (ha, ha) by getting onto some revisions that I'd been putting off making to my novel Chasing Mercury / The Borodino Sacrifice...
And that went well. That's the point. I did another draft that cut out a ton of flab and fixed some clumsy head-hopping that I'd always known would need fixing. I was happy with it at last. Still am.
Only... now I'm straight back on the novella and its problems, because deep down I know that I can't wait for inspiration to arrive and I have to grind it out myself, somehow. But the more disturbing psychological conclusions we can draw from this are these: a) yes, I'm letting my fear of rejection stop me from taking the next step, Duh, and b) nowadays, I'm not even allowing myself a brief, shining moment of optimism and illusion - instead heading straight for the next mess, the next morass.
Whereas Stanley had it right all along. 'You've got to have your Apocalypse Now, don't leave it to later...'
Thought one. It's brutal. One minute you feel you're part of a project - a co-conspirator if not a contributor - and the next you're just another reject. Except it's not just another rejection because unlike most other kinds of submission, you can't take what you wrote and do something else with it. It was written for a purpose, to a brief, almost, and now it's what...? Fan fic, before the fact? (Perhaps, once the competition is finished and the book is out, the unchosen many should set up their own suburb: an unwanted, unsightly but unavoidable strip development beyond Shallow Creek's city limits.)
Thought two. Why does it hurt so much? Because it was thrilling while it lasted. Because it was fun, following the guidelines, poring over the map and the character sheets, trying to work within those boundaries without seeing them as limitations. And knowing that all the time there were all sorts of other people working towards the same goal, in different ways. It was like being in a writers' room - except with the other writers veiled and silent.
Thought three. How to take something positive from this. Bite your lip and buy the book. Learn what it was that the chosen few did better than you. And then, if you don't think they did, let it fester. Lurk the shadows of Shallow Creek forever!
So that was spooky. One moment I was trying to recreate the summer of '76 on the page, in my novella. The next I found I'd recreated it in the real world. I always thought 76 would summon up ghosts.
I got to a fairly advanced draft. My ideal reader was happy with it, my beta reader less so. (Don't use a loved one as a beta reader!) And so, with the river flowing ever more sluggishly, I decided to stop beating against the current (and mixing my metaphors) and turned downstream - to Shallow Creek.
Shallow Creek is STORGY Magazine's latest, excitingly interactive, short story competition. You pay your dues and receive a visitor pack consisting of a character profile, a location, an item of interest and a map, all of which must inspire your story in some way. Last I heard there were more than 130 writers exploring this thoroughly hair-raising if as yet still somewhat imaginary locale - at least so says Mallum Colt (@ColtMallum ), proprietor of Colt's Curiosity Corner and self-confessed trader of the ancient and arcane.
The deadline is 31st August. Must get down to the Police building. Got to look out for a certain clown.
Not a rhetorical question. I don't know. I want to find out.
After the first draft of this novella (actually more like the second) I had the structure pinned down. I had a title (different from what I'd first imagined). Heck, I even had a tag line I liked - and a mocked-up cover to see if it worked (just nod - it's something I feel I need to do).
Can you read that? If not, the tag line says:
A summer that would never end...
...or a world that was about to?
But a tag line, as we're always told, is not a log line. A tag line is a marketing tool, a hook, designed to build intrigue.
A log line is meant to be more like a one-sentence movie pitch. But also a functional summary of the plot: who's it about, what do they want, what stands in their way? But also intriguing, so people actually want to find out...
So my first thought, obviously, was: 'Sh*t! Could I even write a log line for this overambitious, under-planned mess?'
And my next was the one that appears in the headline here. If I can, can it help me? (Because I need help!)
So far I'd say it's certainly a useful exercise. It has helped me focus on the basics, like who are the protagonists/antagonists, what are the stakes, and do I need to explain the setup up-front.
But will it help with draft two (more like three)? The jury is still out on that. Maybe I need to get better at writing log lines before I use them to get better at writing anything else. And with that in mind, for the record, here are some of my attempts. If you can spare an extra few seconds, please let me know which one might persuade you to read the book (if any). As ever, I don't get to see who voted, only which option received the most votes.
Or, rather, what do I do when I'm hopeless at targeting a market? Because, despite the day job, I am. That intelligent thriller becomes historical, then literary, then pulp. That space opera morphs into experimental fiction and slips quietly into the bottom drawer. That note to the milkman... Thou fond-recall'd and long-retirèd help...
Well, what I have done this time is to write for an ideal reader. And this time that's not me in an unconvincing wig, it's my nine year old son, Freddie. Not my eleven year old? This latest poorly-targeted thing is about eleven year olds, isn't it? Well, yes and no, but definitely no, not my eleven year old; he's going through a non-reading phase.
But Freddie still has his advanced reading age, at least for now. He has read all the Harry Potters, several times, and The Lord of the Rings, and His Dark Materials. And so I have enlisted him, just to complicate matters, not only as my ideal reader but as my actual reader as well, and editor, and writing partner.
And if that sounds like an aberration, yes it is, but so is he and so is this thing I'm writing. So what?
And so what if the received wisdom is that the Young Adult audience starts at 12? So what if, we're told, they want to read about kids older than themselves, not younger? Ladies and gentlemen, I give you all the press about how more than half of YA fiction is read by actual As anyway. Oh, and Stranger Things, like I said before.
Because yes, I am still trying to combine a faint whiff of that Netflix nostalgia fest with a big dollop of not-exactly-Proustian autobiographical time-travel. In fact just last week, before the day job took over again, I finished the first draft. Without, I might add, reading The Body or IT or even wanting to. And Freddie, bless him, was very diplomatic, right up to the moment when he pointed out that in my studious attempts not to unknowingly plagiarise Stephen King I had unknowingly plagiarised J. K. Rowling.
Oh yeah, and then he told me that it didn't work, that it had moved too far away from what we had agreed its intentions would be, and of course he's right.
Roll on Draft Two.
I've been working on the aforementioned novella, the one I jokingly referred to as Stranger Things meets Proust (or vice versa).
Which means I've been thinking about Stephen King again, and specifically The Body. I don't even remember reading it (although it's possible I did), but I saw Stand By Me all those years ago and I've read other Stephen Kings, and things inspired by - or inspiring - Stephen King and I can kind of hear it in my head. Even if I'm mishearing it, it's there.
So the nagging question is: do I make a point of reading/re-reading it now? It would help me know what to avoid, in case of accidental plagiarism. It might even inspire me too.
Or would it strangle and suffocate everything I'm trying to do? Would I start tip-toeing so carefully around his story that I'd never get anywhere in my own? Or worse, might it even prompt me, unconsciously, to write some kind of pastiche?
OK. I'm gasping already - a fish on the riverbank. I'll throw myself back in. No King until the first draft's done. Then...
A fledgling American online literary journal has selected one of my short stories to feature in its latest issue.
The issue's theme is Time and the story, Ten, is an exploration of how the act of remembering can become not just a kind of time travel but a dystopian kind at that. (There it is again, that word, dystopian. I wonder why!)
It got me thinking about a follow-up, a longer form short story, maybe even a novella. Something with room for multiple characters and at least two plot lines.
Why at least two plot lines? Partly, I guess, because of the points of view and how those might be articulated. I'm the father of an eleven-year-old boy. I was also eleven, once.
But mostly because of this...
What if, in trying to recapture a particular moment from your childhood, you actually succeeded? What if you tried so hard to put yourself back there, you almost made it? What kind of ghost, what kind of monster, would the eleven-year-old you perceive? Pennywise? Or Boo Radley?
OK, maybe 'Proust meets Stranger Things' is a pitch that needs some fine-tuning, but thanks to The Remnant Leaf for the inspiration.
Some people use random pictures as writing prompts, but this is something more than that.
Found Polaroids is a Canadian creative project that collects images - mute and yet intensely personal, out-of-date and yet in-the-moment as only a Polaroid can really be - and invites us to write new stories for the nameless people in the photographs, to replace those that have been lost.
It's a fascinating exercise that seems to combine everything from 'dirty realism' and historical fiction to speculative fiction and an element of ghost story. It's biography, except it's not. Detective work, kind of. Archaeology/grave robbing or Frankenstein resurrection. It's about them, but also all about us.
What it is, I think, is an exercise in duality, which is why I've called these quantum state stories: stories in which, like Schrödinger's cat, the characters are both dead and alive, and the observer is an active participant. The project as a whole has a duality, I gather, having evolved from the impulse to track down the real stories behind the Polaroids to embrace the truth of our reaction to them as they are.
Anyway, check out the website and make up your own mind. And if you're interested, the Polaroid I chose, #129, has a particular quantum quality to it. Not just because other writers have supplied alternative possibilities but because the girl's own Polaroid camera appears in the picture. Who was/is she? Why two Polaroids? Who took the picture?
I've been writing for as long as I can remember (I think my first letter was a P). I got a degree writing about other people's writing and ever since then I've earned a living writing commercially, one way or another. But I never stopped writing and refining my own stuff. I just didn't do anything with it, until now.